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Meet the Parmelee Sugar House Volunteers

By Clark Judge.

When First Selectwoman Cathy Iino was asked last year what drew her to Killingworth … and what she found unique about the town … her answer was succinct.

The people.

“Here’s the most remarkable thing about the Killingworth community,” she said in an interview with Haddam-Killingworth Now. “We are not about status. We don’t care about the size of your salary, your house or your car … People care more about your service to the community than your job title. I think that’s what sets Killingworth apart.”

She specifically cited “the wonderful volunteers who make good things happen every day here,” adding that their willingness to affect change in and around Killingworth motivated her to run for office. And while she didn’t mention Parmelee Farm, the 132-acre property is a perfect example of “the most remarkable thing about the Killingworth community.”

A destination for dog walkers, hikers and bird watchers, it is staffed year-round by a multitude of volunteers. In fact, the past six weeks 20 of them showed up daily at the Farm’s Sugar House to produce and market maple syrup. Often they appeared in mid-morning, not leaving until the afternoon … but not always. Prior to last weekend’s season-ending sale, four of them stayed until 6 p.m. to bottle and pack the last of the season’s syrup.

Then they returned the next morning to sell it.

“I love the whole maple-sugaring process,” said Debbie Sodergren, one of those involved. “I love that it has a beginning, and it has an end. I can make that kind of commitment.”

For Sodergren and other volunteers, the end came this week. The Sugar House closed down for the season on Tuesday.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Tim Gannon, chairman of the Parmelee Farm committee and head of the Sugar House project, as he closed the doors. “The volunteers are what make this happen, and you develop strong friendships. To accomplish what we hope to accomplish involves getting the community involved, and the volunteers are important part of that.”

Understood. What’s not, however, is what motivated these individuals – many of whom are retired – to donate their time and energy to the making and selling of maple syrup. So we sat down with four members of the Sugar House’s “skeleton team,” volunteers who performed everything involved with the production of maple syrup and without whom, Gannon said, he would be lost.

These are their stories.


A retired systems manager for Subway’s headquarters in Milford, Milnes has resided in Killingworth the past 27 years.

“I lived here for a little while in the ‘70s in a rental cabin out in the woods and liked it,” he said. “So when (my wife and I) were looking for houses, we looked here and Chester. Fortunately, we found Killingworth.”

Fortunately, the Sugar House found him.

He appeared there last year after heeding Gannon’s Facebook call for volunteer help. Milnes had no experience collecting maple syrup and no knowledge of the process but admitted, “It kind of interested me.” So he showed up at Parmelee Farm one morning and never left.

“Being retired,” he said, “I said to my wife” ‘I could probably drill a hole in a tree.’ Since then I think I’ve learned the whole process.”

He has. So much, in fact, that he’s one of Gannon’s most valued lieutenants, a frequent companion when Gannon drives to remote locations to collect sap from Killingworth residents and someone he trusts in his absence to oversee the entire Sugar House operation.

“I don’t sit around well,” Milnes said. “And if I commit to something, I stay with it until it’s done. Obviously, I feel a sense of ownership now because I spend eight weeks of the year here.”

Q: What’s your favorite story from this year? “Last weekend we had a family that came here, and it was their daughter’s birthday. I think she was seven. Anyway, they had looked for something to do with her to make her birthday special. Seeing the Sugar House postings on-line and hearing people say Parmelee Farm was a great place convinced them to come. So they came to the Sugar House, stayed and then they went out on the grounds. The grandmother came in from New York State, and the brother came down from Vermont, and they spent the entire afternoon here roaming around the property. The little girl kept coming back and tasting more syrup. For someone to come and spend her birthday here and have a good time kind of wraps this up for us. That’s why we’re here.”


Founder and CEO of Up Vibrations LLC, an energy/medicine practitioner, best-selling author and mother of three, Debbie Sodergren has volunteered at the Sugar House each of the past two years. To the casual observer, she’s the group’s accountant, keeping track of daily production with a pencil and notebook. But she’s much more, with a background in business and such a thorough knowledge of the syrup process that Gannon sometimes leaves the Sugar House in her hands.

“I believe one of my strengths is to take on a lot of different aspects of a project,” Sodergren said. “I can manage, I can delegate and I can do it. And I know because I ran my own household. Once I got into volunteering at the Sugar House, I knew I could step in and say, ‘I can do that.’ “

Sodergren became interested after attending a 2018 maple syrup workshop led by Gannon at the Killingworth Volunteer Fire Company. She was hooked immediately.

“I felt an inner pulling toward this,” she said. “It excited me. I thought about growing up (in Vermont) and having distant families with sugar houses. I remember visiting them, and it brought back that memory of being happy. So I immediately dropped everything and volunteered for two months to apprentice and learn the process.”

That was last year. This year Sodergren mastered that process so completely that she became a source for planning and implementation.

“The best part of this,” she said, “is the people I get to be with … because they’re not normally in my circles. The downside is that everything in my home life and in my business gets put on hold for six to eight weeks. The laundry backs up. The dinners don’t get made. And my business is put on hold. But I’m willing to take that risk because I’m doing something that makes me a better human.

“For me, it’s important to be part of the community. By volunteering, I gave up my time. But what I got in return was so much more. I’m around volunteer people who have so much information to offer. And I love doing that. By going to the Sugar House every day I’m happy. I feel like I have all these extra people in the community who are my family now. We just fit in. We’re people who are doers, who like to pitch in and who all help out.”

Q: What people should know about the process that they don’t? “If you’ve never visited a sugar house, you’re missing out,” she said. “There’s something magical happening in a Sugar House that is different for everybody. When you walk in there the feeling it gives you is different than the feeling it gives me. That’s the magic of it.”


One of two husband-and-wife teams (Bob and Emmy Pavelka are the other), Jeff and Diane moved to Killingworth 25 years ago from Newington to escape suburban life. They haven’t left.

“Since I was a little girl,” said Diane, “I always had the desire to live ‘the farm life,’ if you will … gardening, animals and all that. And, surprisingly, a childhood dream came true.”

Purchasing a five-and-a-half acre property, she and her husband began raising rabbits, moved on to chickens and today include pigs, sheep, ducks and turkeys among their coterie of livestock. But that’s not all. They process their own maple syrup, too, a practice that began as a hobby when Jeff bought an evaporator 25 years ago.

Today they have 139 taps on trees.

Unlike Milnes and Sodergren, Jeff and Diane had no connection to the Sugar House a year ago. Then last September they attended the annual Artisan Fair, and all that changed. After meeting Gannon and his volunteers and stepping inside the Sugar House, they knew what they had to do.

“We were so impressed with it,” Jeff said. “We said, “We have to be a part of this.’ So we put our names on the volunteer list. Then, when somebody asked if we were retired, and we said, ‘Yes,” they were excited. Because that meant we could show up during the week.’ “

And they have.

Jeff was a supervisor of mechanics for the state of Connecticut. Diane ran an at-home day care center for 10 years. The two raised two children, now grown, and today spend their time at home collecting and processing maple syrup, making their own sausage, canning pickles and jams and selling eggs off the farm.

“We’re kinda like a Little House on the Prairie” said Diane. “It’s a labor of love. We’re a little hobby farm, and we’re having a lot of fun.”

Apparently. Because somehow they found time this winter to squeeze in the Sugar House, with Jeff sometimes there each day of the week.

“I never sit down,” he said. “Like the Energizer Bunny, I just keep going and going. I can’t seem to sit down and rest. We get up in the morning. We empty the buckets (of sap). We feed all our animals. We come down here (Parmelee). Then we get home at night, fire up the evaporator and we boil until 11, 12 or 1 to 2 in the morning. Whatever it takes.”

Q: What do you enjoy the most about the experience? “Working with awesome volunteers and good, decent people,” Jeff said. “It’s hard in this world to find good, decent people nowadays. Everybody who comes here smiles. The Sugar House just makes you happy. When you can take sap from a tree, and your end-product is this bottle of maple syrup that you put on the table, enjoy and share with your family and friends … that’s what it’s all about.”


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